2015 Film Essays

Guns and Dreams in John Cassavetes’ Noirs

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Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” (1980)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Gloria (1980) are two unexpected turns in John Cassavetes’ oeuvre. No longer bringing the domestic scene to the foreground, these features come closer to film noir as characters suddenly find themselves trapped in dilemmas where violence proves to be the only escape. Nevertheless, Cassavetes’ crime films are not just shootouts and car chases. Intertwined with the jarring noise of shotguns is the quiet display of interpersonal dramas as these reluctant killers, surrounded by their harsh social realities, descend into cynicism and identity crisis.

Watching Killing and Gloria entails an uncomfortable sense of frustration; the audience aches for the two main characters, whose dreams always slip through their grasp. Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) in Killing has no desire to be a criminal. A club owner who has recently paid the final installment of his gambling debt, Cosmo again stumbles in the footsteps of Mort (Seymour Cassel), who invites him to his casino. After losing a large amount of money, Cosmo agrees to murder a Chinese bookie for Mort (in order to avoid bankruptcy), only to be lured in a more dangerous, double-crossing scheme. Following the same narrative noir arc, the eponymous protagonist of Gloria (Gena Rowlands) also finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Knocking on the neighbors’ door for coffee, Gloria is suddenly entrusted with Phil (John Adames), their six-year-old boy, moments before the whole family is murdered by the mob. On the run with Phil, Gloria is confronted with her maternal instincts, as well as her past relations to the gangsters.

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Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976)

Gloria and Cosmo’s dreams are simple American dreams. After Phil is dropped into her hands, Gloria packs up her belongings while loudly counting her life accomplishments, including her money, apartment, friends and cat. In other words, Gloria has achieved the middle class ideal of micro living. From now on, she could concentrate on her own secure life, detached from the concerns of others, that is until the Puerto Rican boy disrupts her world. Like Cosmo in Killing, Gloria’s onscreen presence is accompanied by a lone instrument score that heightens her status of an outsider trapped in peril.

In the same fashion, Cosmo cherishes the old, clean American ambition of building a business from scratch, or in his case, of establishing a good strip joint. He takes special care of the dancers, remembers all the numbers and even auditions the new girls himself. While Cosmo longs to be recognized as the person who single-handedly manages the Crazy Horse West, the character curiously stays in the shadows. He lurks behind the curtains and locks himself in the harsh stage light that deforms his entire figure. He harbors a desire to be noticed, and yet Cosmo cannot step into the spotlight. The tragedy lies in the fact that, as long as Cosmo owns a strip club, he will forever remain behind the scenes. His characterization bears a parallel to Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts), a pale and poor imitation of the Emcee from Cabaret (1972), who often laments how the girls overshadow him: “When things go well, they [the strippers] get the applause and all the cheers because they flash their tits,” says Mr. Sophistication and thus effectively vocalizes Cosmo’s personal turmoil: he is on the verge of a masculinity crisis.

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Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976)

Killing and Gloria’s examination of masculinity is darkly cynical. Throughout Killing, Cosmo tries to perform the role of a successful club owner. Whenever he goes to a social gathering, he drags along an entourage consisting of the beautiful strippers who are also his employees. His preparation before going to Mort’s casino is almost comical yet deeply unsettling. Driven by a chauffeur to pick up the girls, he gives each of them an orchid, the final touch to complete the ceremonial parade of his masculine power. Cosmo’s attention to his appearance is even noticeable during his character’s introduction. A long take lingers on Cosmo as he steps out of a car, dressed in all white, and walks up to a table in a coffee shop. His clothes distinguish him from everyone else, and the audience does not get a chance to see the other person (who turns out to be his debt collector). Cosmo accuses the collector as “having no style” — elevating his own image to another class of men (despite the low social status of his establishment). Yet, for all Cosmo’s demonstration of masculinity, in the end, he is rejected by his girlfriend and ruins his club’s future. In other words, Cosmo has failed his own male ideal, both personally and professionally.

Gloria exhibits the same attitudes towards masculinity. The 6-year-old Phil, parroting his father’s last words, constantly proclaims “I am the man! I am the man!” (to which Gloria quietly smirks). She knows better than him that in this chaotic world, being a man does not necessarily guarantee protection. In fact, if masculinity is boiled down to gun power in Gloria, Rowlands’ character towers over her male counterparts. Whenever she holds a gun in her hands, her actions are not only cold-blooded but also extremely precise. As she aims at her targets, the camera usually brings both Gloria’s face and her gun into focus while she stands in the dead center of the frame, daring others to come into combat with her. The moment when Gloria stares straight at the camera while screaming “You let a woman beat you, huh?” is especially startling. Not only does she corner her enemies, but she also demands them (and the audience) to acknowledge her power and their defeat. Towards the end of the film, Phil goes further than accepting Gloria as his mother. In fact, she’s his father, mother, girlfriend and family all combined, which effectively erases the distinction between femininity and masculinity. Transcending the simplistic reading of the late blooming of maternal love, Gloria and Phil’s relationship establishes them as equals who stick together through the difficult forces of life.

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Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” (1980)

Stylistically, Killing and Gloria are heavily influenced by classic film noirs. Even Gloria’s name is patterned after Gloria Swanson, the actress immortalized by her performance as the femme fatale in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Cosmo and Gloria’s clothes get darker as the films proceed. The club owner goes from his white suit in the beginning to a blood-stained jacket in the end. In the same vein, Gloria abandons her saggy pink pajamas for a sharp black dress with yellow lining, perfect for her final confrontation with the mob. Characters are draped in low-key lighting, even though Gloria tweaks noir conventions by having most of the shootings take place out in the open and during daytime. Interestingly enough, while the formal elements of the two films act as an homage to Old Hollywood, their social critiques bear a resemblance to Cassavetes’ earlier domestic dramas through visually depicting the characters’ entrapment within social constraints.

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Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” (1980)

Throughout Killing and Gloria, the two protagonists frequently mention the “system.” At one point, Gloria utters, “You can’t beat the system,” to which Phil asks, “What’s the system?” “I don’t know,” says the older woman, and her answer ties together the social cynicism of Killing and Gloria. In Cosmo and Gloria lies a yearning for self-reinvention. They desire to start over, and yet their dreams are harnessed by outside forces. Their lives are endlessly tangled in criminal schemes despite their own desire to cut ties with past mistakes. Nevertheless, underneath the mass of interpersonal relations is a dangerous sense of urban detachment. Characters in Killing and Gloria move so easily. They jump in and out of cars, change taxis or hop on trains. Blending into the crowds, Cosmo and Gloria secretly wish for their histories to be erased, even when a future escape from their own social classes seems futile. In the end, Gloria appears to achieve anonymity. Dressed as an old woman, she picks up Phil from a cemetery and they hold each other in a long embrace, anticipating a new life together. On the other hand, Killing closes with Cosmo wondering on the sidewalk in front of his club, his jacket soaked with his own blood from the killing. Cosmo is on the border between man and murderer, living and dying as he stays between worlds right to the very last minute of the film, completing the ambiguous atmosphere that looms over the world of Cassavetes’ noirs: they are slices of lives at the dead end of broken dreams.

Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.

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